At the Movies with Alan Gekko: 1917

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: War Drama/ Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch/ Runtime: 119 minutes

I feel it is safe to say that in Hollywood there are few of the movie making department known as cinematography who you could honestly even remotely begin to classify as a “household name”. Yet if such a list did exist I feel that Mr. Roger Deakins would most definitely be one of those people. Indeed this is a man who has been working since the late 1970’s, but you most likely would know for both his collaborations with, among others, The Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, and Denis Villenueve, and also for the fact that this is a guy who always manages to bring his A-Game to a production by managing to consistently showcase a truly jaw-dropping sense of vision for whatever is going on in that particular film.

Thus it should go without saying, but should you see Deakins’ name pop up amongst a film’s list of credits, I feel that you, the film goer now should know to mentally prepare themselves for something that is both gorgeous and instantly iconic. Yet even with that knowledge under my belt, I feel it is safe to say that the new war movie 1917 is a cinematic experience unlike anything he’s ever accomplished before. I say that because what Deakins and long-time collaborator Sam Mendes have managed to craft is a powerful, and absolutely unrelenting tour through the absolute hell that was World War I. Yet what ultimately makes us this trip through madness even more relentless is the fact that this film has an added caveat that this film manages to showcase everything in what ultimately feels like one continuous shot. Thus, while the material being featured through the narrative will most likely seem very familiar to those from World War I or just war movies in general of the past, I ultimately think that it is the way this one is brought so vividly to life for your viewing pleasure that really goes a long way towards making this film feel entirely new yet just as horrific, and gut wrenchingly terrifying as ever.

The plot is as follows: Set during the third year of the global conflict that was World War 1, 1917 chooses to center its story on Schofield and Blake, two Privates in the British Army who find themselves being given a devastatingly important mission from their General. This mission takes the form of the fact that a regiment that includes Blake’s brother is planning an attack on what they believe to be retreating Germans yet what they don’t know is that it’s actually a strategic retreat. To put it plainly: A trap is being set by the Germans, and should the British forces fall into it, the result could be 1,600 casualties, Blake’s brother among them. Now since the Captain leading the charge is set to dispatch the first wave of men at dawn, Schofield and Blake must now traverse a huge amount of the French countryside in a short amount of time in order to deliver the message on time, all while navigating a tortured, unpredictable, and alien landscape whilst also attempting to be mindful of any stray enemy combatants hanging around.

Now with a natural ticking clock of a narrative and a unique cinematography style that manages to track the events in the film in a sense of real time, I feel that, within minutes of the film’s start, the pressure is increased by a scale factor of at least 10, and from that moment on does everything in its power to try and keep you on the edge of your seat in nervous and borderline horrified anticipation throughout the remainder of the film. Yet while the friendly comradery between the two main leads does provide a bit of a release, this, without going into spoilers, will ultimately prove to be less and less effective as we begin to see the circumstances the two men find themselves proving to be more dangerous and dire than they could have imagined when they first started out. Indeed it almost feels like there is almost an episodic nature towards this film’s plot due to several action and character-driven vignettes that play out across the movie’s runtime that manage to simultaneously to both continue the journey, but also manage to showcase what life is like in a war zone during World War I.

Yet while the story driving the film is pretty simple, and there are a couple of plot contrivances run into by the two main leads along the way, I feel it is not wrong to say, but 1917 as a film manages to primarily exist as a technical achievement, and in that capacity it needs to be said: this movie is a true marvel. Indeed to be fair, the construction surrounding this film isn’t 100% perfect, due in no small part to the one-shot aesthetic proving to be not entirely seamless due to some fairly obvious cut points within the film itself. Yet I feel that should hardly distract you as a movie goer from what is being done in the big picture right before your very eyes.

Indeed, this is a special case where a film’s behind-the-scenes documentary on the Blu-Ray may just wind up end up being as fascinating as the finished film itself. I say this because there are certain camera maneuvers that are both in equal measure breathtaking and mind-boggling to the point where starting to wonder “Just how did they manage to do that?” might momentarily take you out of the cinematic journey unfolding so you might want to save that for after the movie is done. Indeed, I definitely think that the perfect second viewing of this film at home would most assuredly be a version that is showcased side-by-side with footage taken from set that just follows everything that the main camera was ultimately able to do during every single shot. Yet even if the process of executing the camera movement weren’t enough, this is a film that has a sense of style which also demands that scenes cannot be traditionally lit due to almost all of the film being set outside. However this doesn’t prove to be an issue for the talents of Mendes and Deakins. This is because they are nevertheless able to not only showcase a truly incredible sense of both color and atmosphere in the film’s environments, but are also able to when the sun has gone down and fire is the primary source of illumination to do some truly phenomenal work that is really next-level, and should be looked over and analyzed by film students for years to come.

Now although there are some fun surprise appearances from great actors laced into the story they prove to be virtually glorified cameos as most are usually given at best 10-15 minutes’ worth of screen time. Thus the movie is decidedly hoisted on the shoulders of both George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman to guide us through the chaos and rubble of a ruined world, and they manage to deliver some truly excellent performances. Indeed, MacKay in particular, is continually proving that he has what it takes to be a truly great actor, as his turn herein as Schofield is both a dramatic and harrowing revelation following his wonderful work in the James Franco-starring limited series 11.22.63. Of course, in a desire not to be sold short to his co-star, Chapman also manages to get across some truly emotional material here, thus managing to prove that he is capable of being more to audiences than just Game of Thrones’ Tommen Baratheon.

All in all as long as the medium of film exists, I feel that there will always be a thin and narrow line to distinguish just what truly is a “storytelling device” and what truly is just a plain and simple cheap “gimmick” to get people in seats. Yet while the movie 1917 consistently finds itself tiptoeing on that proverbial line as it unfolds its potent and powerful story, by the time the credits start to roll I feel that there can be no questioning in regards to the extraordinary achievement that has been crafted for your viewing pleasure here. Indeed 1917 is not only a potent look at the horror of the Great War, and an ode to the power of brotherhood. It’s also a must-see on the biggest screen available in your area, and a true win for both Mendes, Deakins, and everyone else on this hardworking cast and crew. On a scale of 1-5 I give 1917 a solid 4.5 out of 5.